Cold Case: Skeleton Cave , Leigh Woods

Sometimes names are a mystery… and until recently that was true for ‘Skeleton Cave’.

Back in 98 we commissioned an archaeological site survey for the National Trust’s Bristol property ..Leigh Woods. It found that one of its Avon Gorge caves (near the Clifton Suspension Bridge), was named Skeleton Cave. No explanation could be discovered, just an empty cave with a name.

10-03-08-leigh-woods-michaels-hill-golden-cap-022The view from Stokeleigh Camp down to the Skeleton Cave at Leigh Woods

Bones preserve well in the carboniferous limestone caves and are often found when cavers dig there…though discoveries may be centuries old and poorly recorded.

Deep cave deposits can be  of many periods. The National Trust has a good Somerset cave collection.. at Leigh Woods, Brean Down and the Mendips properties. Cave deposits tend to be very ancient indeed. At Cheddar there is a cave known as the Bone Hole where many prehistoric bones have been found. The Royal Holloway College has been carrying out exceptional research at Ebbor. Here, after a decade of excavations,through layers containing Pleistocene animal remains, some human occupation evidence has recently been found. This is over 30,000 years old and below layers containing bones of long lost British creatures like aurochs, arctic foxes, reindeer and bears.

img_1386Pleistocene animal bones from Ebbor Gorge

So Skeleton Cave is a cold case.. and an unexpected email from Graham at Bristol University reopened the files. First, and most obviously, it is Skeleton Cave because back in 1965 two men dug there and found prehistoric flint flakes and a skeleton. National Trust had no idea the excavation was taking place until a report appeared in the local paper. At that point the Bristol Spelaeological Society at Bristol University wrote to NT to raise their concerns.

Surviving cave deposits are rare and any excavation needs to be backed up with the resources and experience to analyse the finds and publish the information. So the excavation stopped and the finds were handed over to the National Trust. Bristol Spelaeological Society put together a file on what they could find out about the excavation.

Graham let me see the Bristol correspondence and hoped to find more from the National Trust files. The NT archive is curated in environmentally friendly conditions in old WWII tunnels near Chippenham, Wiltshire. The relevant files were called up and brought to our office at Tisbury. A morning of searching revealed very little additional information.

Back in the 1960s, the National Trust had very few staff compared with today and some properties were administered by local management committees. Some of the letters in Graham’s file were from the Leigh Woods committee and this reminded me of the tin trunk we once had in the cellar at our old office at Eastleigh Court, Warminster.

The box had been full of minute books and maps and other documents held by the Leigh Woods Management Committee and was transferred to the Leigh Woods property hub at Tyntesfield when we moved. I contacted the collections manager there and Graham went to Tyntesfield to look inside the box…Unfortunately,  just committee stuff and nothing about Skeleton Cave.

Within the Bristol University files were letters from the old Wessex Regional Office at Stourhead. Perhaps the 2 boxes of finds from Skeleton Cave were taken there. No, they may be hidden somewhere but the Stourhead collection is largely catalogued and there is nothing from Bristol.

Another of Graham’s 1960s letters is from Lacock and this is a more likely place for something to be hidden. The Talbot family were finding things on their Wiltshire estate for centuries before it came to the Trust and there are numerous rooms and boxes all through the ranges of Abbey buildings. The collection is still being catalogued. Visions of the two lost Leigh Woods finds boxes hidden like Ravenclaw’s diadem within Lacock’s ‘rooms of requirement’ (Lacock featured in the early Harry Potter films).

No luck so far. Usually back then, NT archaeological finds would be deposited at the local museum which would be Bristol City Museum. They have no records from Skeleton Cave.

However, not all is lost. Graham has a drawn section of the cave, notes on the excavation and a precious human lower jaw which was given to the University by the finders. He will publish an account of the discovery and Lisa at Tyntesfield has found the money to provide a radiocarbon date for the mandible.

10-03-08-leigh-woods-michaels-hill-golden-cap-023Bristol Suspension Bridge and the Avon Gorge from Stokeleigh Camp Iron Age hillfort.

It was analysed a few days ago and we await the result.

 

 

 

 

Day One : Ready, steady, dig

Day One is always full of bits and bobs as equipment is unloaded, trenches pegged out, position of spoil heaps decided, volunteers briefed and sun cream applied.

Turf removed and a fresh layer to dig

Turf removed and a fresh layer to dig in the cross passage site, looking for doorways and trying to sort out phasing of walls -which came first.

Some of our lovely volunteers have returned and new ones join us for the first time. Steve and Max return for a day and become the finders of bones! all animal bones so far, mainly sheep.

Max and Steve find a group of bones

Max and Steve find a group of bones and look very pleased about it!

It’s lovely to have fine weather but digging in very hot conditions can be exhausting. We borrowed some of the Chedworth education historical enactors hats as heads and necks began to feel the sun.

A perfect hat for Megan

A perfect hat for Megan

Two more trenches were opened up, including the site from last year in front of the north bath house. Were all last years painted plaster came from , the first job is removing all the back fill to get back to where we stopped last year.

Last years trench being re excavated

Last years trench being re excavated, looking for the original floor levels and the other side of the blocked doorway in the bottom left of the picture.

A trench has been positioned behind the north bath house to look for walls and possible steps that would lead down into the stoke hole and water boiler room for the baths.

Alex, Seb and Carol cleaning back the top soil behind the bath house

Alex, Seb and Carol cleaning back the top soil behind the bath house

 

Monday morning, Monday morning ……

 

'Lets get sorted, the spoil heap can go here and the tool store here'

‘Lets get sorted, the spoil heap can go here and the tool store here’

We are back at Chedworth Villa for two more weeks of excavation, it was a  sunny warm day, the birds were singing and Swallows swarmed above our heads. This year we are investigating three areas, the raised area in front of the North bath house, the apsidal room next to it and more of the ‘water feature’ we worked on last year.

Wonder if we will find a mosaic in this room?

Wonder if we will find a mosaic in this room?

Nathan, Amy and Fay set to work in the apsidal room hoping for a mosaic under the turf, they started to find animal bones, flue tile and many tesserae (small cubes of stone and tile) sadly all the tesserae were lose and non were joined together into a floor!

Meanwhile, Rob, Luke, Max, Martin and Jan started on the upper area in front of the bath house. This area had been partly excavated 15 years ago. They cleaned back the site and removed the gravel down to the geo-textile that was put down over the previously excavated area, tomorrow we should be able to lift it to reveal what they found.

Due to the dry conditions cleaning back proved very dusty!

Due to the dry conditions cleaning back proved very dusty!

We are up and running, who knows what tomorrow will reveal. We have the Ranger team in to remove a small amount of Sir Ian Richmond’s concrete and have a go at excavating, so the site should change quite quickly.

The Bottleknap Trio, Long Bredy: The Lost Dorset Generations

This is a good story. No photos this time. Just an update.

Bodies in Trenches was a blog from the end of 2013.

At that time, we mentioned that some bones had been unearthed during a watching brief on a drainage trench beside Bottleknap Cottage in Long Bredy. This is a little piece of National Trust land, a 17th century cottage and a couple of fields all on its own in the parish of Long Bredy. It’s tucked away below the South Dorset Ridgeway.. towards the coast. There was no planning condition for a watching brief. The NT believed the place to be significant enough to keep an eye open while the ground was being disturbed.

Peter and Mike watched the digger and almost 1m down beneath some stones, at the point where it must surely have reached natural bedrock, the bucket came up full of bones. They stopped everything, dropped down into the trench and saw the parts of the skeletons in the deep narrow trench section. Including the severed ends of long bones and the line of a spine.

Claire looked through the bones and saw there were the hip bones of at least three young people, teenagers or early twenties. From what could be recorded from such a narrow slice, the bodies had been in a line, buried in a crouched position, with their heads pointing to the north.

Nothing to date them though. What were they doing there so deep beneath the Dorset countryside? Were they buried under a cairn of stones? Was this a crime? The parish church is just a few hundred metres away but crouched burials tend to be far older than the first churches in England.

Burials in round barrows tend to be on hill tops and the South Dorset Ridgeway, which overlooks Long Bredy, has hundreds of examples of these…

The bone fragments were very well preserved so we sent three samples away for radiocarbon dating and waited….not knowing what dates would come back. One date is just a date, two dates may conflict or be a coincidence.. three dates will give you good supporting evidence if they match.

This week the dates came back. If you have.. that time bug… then such moments are electric.

The dates of the three samples matched (C14 is not precise you understand) and fell between 800-600 BC. The graph suggested that the true date of burial was likely to be towards the earlier end of this range.

The thing to do now is to make comparisons with similar finds in Dorset.. but there are none. I checked with Peter who checked with Claire.. nope.

There are times in prehistory where there is much evidence for burial and others where there is none at all. (whatever did they do with their dead?) and our Bottleknap trio fall within the latter.

Bit of a dark age really.. when the very first fragments of revolutionary iron were being brought to our shores. These three are the very first Dorset people we can link to this period.

If we look to the wider world..this is the time of the Assyrians. For example, in the book of Isaiah in 701 BC King Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem…. but Dorset has no such history.. just these three young people found in a drainage trench beneath some stones.

The games people play…

 

A bone domino with bronze pins to attach it to a thicker base, probably made from wood

A bone domino with bronze pins to attach it to a thicker base, probably made from wood

With football, tennis and cricket in full swing my mind turns to games. Not in terms of field games but more sedate board games and pastimes.

 Whether we are excavating trenches or looking under floorboards, we come across those lost counters, dice and cards from the games we probably all still play today. But some of the pieces may not be what we think, it is thought that they could also have been used as theater tickets, or counters for use  by accountants, and as tokens for gambling. Some of the objects like the domino above or playing cards are more obvious than the rounded stones, glass, pottery or bone objects.

Roman glass gaming counter

Roman glass gaming counter

We can be sure that this roman glass counter is for playing games, as a set of very similar counters were found on top of the remains of a board at Lullingstone roman villa, in  Kent. The pattern and colour of dots on each counter is different, but they do form two sets, the actual game is not known, but it is thought that it may have been something similar to backgammon.

Roman glass counter black with white and red marks

Roman glass counter black with white and red marks

 We only found this one the rest are probably still in the field scattered by many years of ploughing. From the same fields we found stone counters, one with decoration on the edge and thinner and finer than the other two.

The plain ones maybe counters from gambling games and the finer decorated one looks more like a board game piece.

Boards for these games can be wooden or scratched lines on stone or tiles. The wooden ones only survive in wet or very dry conditions and often only the metal corners survive in situ. 

Three stone counters or gaming pieces from the Kingston Lacy Estate
Three stone counters or gaming pieces from the Kingston Lacy Estate
clos up of decoration on the fine stone piece

close up of decoration on the fine stone piece

 

 

 

 

 

 

 At Chedworth roman villa there is one architectural stone
slab with an incised chequer board, in one corner. In the collection are a couple of possible gaming pieces or counters. There may have been more but if they were very basic objects they may not have been recognized by the Victorian excavators as interesting and worth keeping.

 We sometimes find die and dice on sites, often made from bone and in various sizes, they are always worth a more detailed look. Sometimes when bone dice are x-rayed you can see inserts of lead so that the roll of the die is effected, this suggests that they were probably used for gambling and by a cheat!

At Corfe Castle we excavated a very small bone die from the outer gate house guard chamber. We have not x-rayed it as it shows clearly its quirks! 

A very small bone die from Corfe Castle outer guard chamber

A very small bone die from Corfe Castle outer guard chamber

 

A drawing of the Corfe Castle bone die showing the alterations to the dot numbers

A drawing of the Corfe Castle bone die showing the alterations to the dot numbers

When you look closely at the dots you can see that it was probably a usual die that has been altered by adding dots, the side with six dots is the only one you cannot change, and five was the largest number that all the other sides could be changed to. Was it part of a dice game were other die had changed numbers or once again was it a way to cheat. The die is very small and if used inside the guard chamber it would have been dark and may not have shown up very well especially if the owner of the die had a good sleight of hand!

 

 

Brean Down: Reindeer to Battery

Brean Down is a ridge of rock that sticks out into the sea on the south side of Weston Super Mare. Nearly all of it is a scheduled monument and rightly so, this is definitely an A* site for archaeology.

Brean Down looking NW a  carboniferous limestone ridge on the south side of the Bristol Channel entrance.

Brean Down looking NW a carboniferous limestone ridge on the south side of the Bristol Channel entrance.

Approaching it from the south across the Somerset Levels..through the caravan parks. The carboniferous limestone cliff looms up. A giant wind-break..the silts and sands are stopped by Brean and thousands of years worth of evidence of people’s lives has been buried by its slow accumulation.

At the bottom are reindeer bones.., some were remains of meals left by communities of hunters about 12,000 years ago.

The sand cliff  from the beach looking east. The deposits have built up against the limestone cliff over thousands of years. The wind sweeps off the  levels from the south and has buried archaeology from the remains of hunted reindeer 14,000 years old at the bottom to a Dark Age cemetery of AD 5th-6th century near the top.

The sand cliff from the beach looking east. The deposits have built up against the limestone cliff over thousands of years. The wind sweeps off the levels from the south and has buried archaeology from the remains of hunted reindeer 14,000 years old at the bottom to a Dark Age cemetery of AD 5th-6th century near the top.

Higher up have been found Neolithic flint tools covered by Bronze Age salt-working remains and near the top a Dark Age Christian cemetery below a Tudor rabbit farmer’s cottage. It’s virtually a… you name it we’ve got it ..sort of place and there is much more to be discovered.

Along the crest of the Down are visible earthworks,’celtic’ fields (remains of the Bronze Age to Romano-British farming), these small enclosures are intermingled with Bronze Age burial mounds, an Iron Age fort and a 4th century Roman temple.

The top of the Down looking east towards the Somerset coast. There are the remains of prehistoric fields and Bronze Age burial mounds here as well as an Iron Age hillfort and Romano-Celtic temple.

The top of the Down looking east towards the Somerset coast. There are the remains of prehistoric fields and Bronze Age burial mounds here as well as an Iron Age hillfort and Romano-Celtic temple.

Other mounds have possibilities. Nick, who carried out the National Trust survey for Brean a few years ago wonders whether one mound facing the Bristol Channel might be a Roman light house or signal post which once guided trading vessels towards the mouth of the River Axe. He and Mark will test this theory in May with a couple of small trenches. Their geophysics has provided some encouraging results.

The Down is well worth a visit. Park in Brean Cafe’ car park beside the beach and take the long climb up the steps over the Brean sand deposits until the summit is reached. There are great views across the levels to the south or across Weston Bay and the Bristol Channel to the north. Follow the undulating spine of the ridge until you start to descend at the west end and there in front of you are the remains of a military base.

The first concrete bunker you come to was the command centre. It is a shell now but there is a WWII photo that shows the soldiers here with range finders, radios and charts on the walls. From here looking down to the left perched on the cliff is one concrete searchlight building, the other lies at the western tip of Brean.

Plan of the Palmerstonian fort gun emplacements before they were covered by new gun positions in WWII.

Plan of the Palmerstonian fort gun emplacements before they were covered by new gun positions in WWII.

The main thing to look at here is the fort built to guard against potential attack by Napoleon III’s French troops. By the time it was ready in 1872 and the gunners were stationed there, the French had largely been defeated by Germany and the string of forts ordered by the Prime Minister along the south coast became known as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’

The barrack block built for 20 men only had about 4 or 5 men living there according to the census returns of 1881 and 1891. The officer’s house was lived in by the Master Gunner along with his wife and 6 children aged 1-11 years old. His army career had taken him to various parts of the Empire as his children had each been born in exotic foreign places.

In 1900, Gunner Haynes decided to fire a shot into the Gun Battery’s magazine and blew himself and part of the military base into bits. By 1913, the old Brean Battery had been turned into a Cafe’ and day-trippers came to use the old military base as a recreation area which had a swing and a see-saw. People went down into the munitions stores and signed their names on the walls. Brean NT volunteers have photographed and transcribed them and written a report. The cafe’ was in use throughout WWI but it closed down in 1936.

Brean Down Fort was a cafe' from 1913-1936 and graffiti in the underground Victorian ammunition stores shows many visitors there during WWI.

Brean Down Fort was a cafe’ from 1913-1936 and graffiti in the underground Victorian ammunition stores shows many visitors there during WWI.

WWII and the base was re-occupied. A series of bases for Nissan huts can be seen on the north side of the Battery and two new gun emplacements were built over the old Victorian gun sites. The Bristol Channel was a strategic position and needed to be guarded.

Towards the end of the war, as the invasion threat receded, the boffins moved in. Known locally as the ‘wheezers and dodgers’ they were based in Weston in the old Victorian Birkbeck pier and used the Down and beach beside it to test rockets and other devices, particularly in advance of the D-Day landings of 1944.

Beyond the gun battery is the rocky headland with the view towards the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the Channel. A WWII searchlight building can be seen. Part of its roof has been flipped back by a violent storm. To the right are the rails for an experimental rocket launcher created by the 'wheezer and dodger' boffins based in a requisitioned pier in Weston-Super-Mare.

Beyond the gun battery is the rocky headland with the view towards the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the Channel. A WWII searchlight building can be seen. Part of its roof has been flipped back by a violent storm. To the right are the rails for an experimental rocket launcher created by the ‘wheezer and dodger’ boffins based in a requisitioned pier in Weston-Super-Mare.

At the end of Brean, beyond the Battery survives a pair of rails used as a rocket launching device.

Take a trip and go and look. Brean is stunning for nature conservation too but this is an archaeology blog after all so I won’t mention the Peregrines and the rock roses…oh I just did.

Kingston Lacy’s Roman Amphitheatre

Old John Bankes died back in 1772 and as he wasn’t married his younger brother Henry inherited. Henry only lived another 4 years but he did something remarkable. He commissioned a cutting edge surveyor called William Woodward to make a detailed record of his Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle Estates in Dorset. This week Francesca kindly digitally photographed the whole survey.

The archive room at Kingston Lacy House. Until the 1980s the Bankes family archive including Willliam Woodward's survey was stored in the mansion and few people had seen it

The archive room at Kingston Lacy House. Until the 1980s the Bankes family archive including Willliam Woodward’s survey was stored in the mansion and few people had seen it

Yesterday, I sat in the conference room in Warminster and saw a remarkable aerial and lidar survey of Brownsea Island. The surveyor did whizzy things on the computer and zoomed into and enhanced images, measuring any detail on command. Things have come a long way since the 18th century but Woodward’s surveys are still accurate and detailed and also works of art.

One can imagine Mr Woodward arriving at Kingston Lacy House in 1775 and being shown into the library to meet his important client, Henry Bankes, surrounded by the portraits of his ancestors. The surveyor would have placed the books on the desk and explained the conclusions of his work. The money that could be made by enclosing the common arable fields and creating compact farming units….

This is Woodward's fold-out front map which shows all the land of the Kingston Lacy Estate each lettered compartment has a detailed map within the leather bound survey book.

This is Woodward’s fold-out front map which shows all the land of the Kingston Lacy Estate each lettered compartment has a detailed map within the leather bound survey book.

And there the books stayed through generations of the Bankes family gathering dust in the archive cupboard until 1982 when the Bankes family estates were given to the National Trust.

I was given the job of creating a very different survey. To audit with management recommendations all the archaeological sites I could find on NTs newly acquired Kingston Lacy Estate. Woodward’s survey was the oldest detailed map of the land so I went to its new home in the Dorset Records Office in Dorchester.. to take a look.

Wow! Historic maps are wonderful. There was so much information…There was Badbury Rings hillfort… there were the three barrows clearly visible as they are today beside the entrance track… and there was the Roman Amphitheatre..Roman Amphitheatre?

A detail of the front map. Badbury Rings hillfort.. three mounds which are Bronze Age barrows... Roman Amphitheatre!!?

A detail of the front map. Badbury Rings hillfort.. three mounds which are Bronze Age barrows… Roman Amphitheatre!!?

What was William thinking of? Things ‘classical’, Roman and Greek, were very fashionable in his day. What had he seen to make such a mistake? The only known amphitheare in Dorset is in Dorchester, the local administrative centre then as it still is today… I had to go and have a look on the ground.

The 'amphitheatre' when I first saw it under stubble. The ranging poles stand on opposite sides of the 60m diameter enclosure which has a hollowed area at the centre.

The ‘amphitheatre’ when I first saw it under stubble. The ranging poles stand on opposite sides of the 60m diameter enclosure which has a hollowed area at the centre.

I peered over the gate into a wheat field, there was certainly an earthwork. A ploughed down circular enclosure with a dip in the middle about 60m across. I asked the farmer and he said he thought it had been caused by a German bomb in WWII. That didn’t work, Woodward had seen it before it was ploughed over 230 years ago, it must have been an impressive earthwork then.

The site lay right next to the Roman road to Dorchester. Woodward shows the ‘amphitheatre’ entrance facing the road. Where was the town or settlement or Roman fort which would justify such a building (this was before we discovered the Roman settlement a few hundred metres to the south…see the blog post on Vindocladia)

A photo of the 'amphitheatre' taken from a model airplane after ploughing. The white mark is the chalk bank and the darker line the outer ditch. An earlier field boundary ditch emerges from below the chalk bank at the bottom of the picture.

A photo of the ‘amphitheatre’ taken from a model airplane after ploughing. The white mark is the chalk bank and the darker line the outer ditch. An earlier field boundary ditch emerges from below the chalk bank at the bottom of the picture.

David the warden asked a volunteer to send up a camera mounted on a model plane so that it could take aerial photographs after ploughing. Later, we walked across the site picking up prehistoric flint and the odd piece of Roman pot. The whole thing looked promising. This was a rare puzzle.. so Tim the managing agent and the farmer gave us permission to put in two trenches where the enclosure bank was crossed by the hedge.

We laid out a trench on either side of the ploughed down earthwork against the hedge beside the road down to Shapwick. Badbury lies beyond the Beech Avenue trees at the top of the picture. The ranging rod lies beside the outer ditch where a Roman spiral ring and a 3rd century coin were found in its filling.

We laid out a trench on either side of the ploughed down earthwork against the hedge beside the road down to Shapwick. Badbury lies beyond the Beech Avenue trees at the top of the picture. The ranging rod lies beside the outer ditch where a Roman spiral ring and a 3rd century coin were found in its filling.

We found that a ditch had been dug and the chalk bedrock had been heaped up to form a once massive circular enclosure bank. Over the following centuries the ditch had gradually silted up. In the filling we found a lump of Roman roof tile, then a spiral bronze ring and a 3rd century Roman coin. Perhaps it was an amphitheatre after all.

Then we realised that there had been an inner ditch but it had been backfilled almost immediately. Within the chalky fill were lumps of bone and thick black pottery. We were surprised when our trowels touched bone, then a whole skeleton was carefully uncovered at the bottom of the ditch. It turned out to be the the well preserved remains of a young pregnant cow. This was not the only animal burial we found, we also uncovered two sheep buried in pits within the enclosure (just in our narrow trenches..were there lots of burials hidden across he site?). We waited for the Radiocarbon dates to come back. When they arrived they dated the site to long before the Roman period. The animals had been buried in the period 1100-900 BC, the time when King David and later King Solomon ruled Israel.

The outer ditch had silted gradually of the centuries but the inner ditch had been dug out and backfilled soon afterwards leaving the body of a young pregnant cow in the bottom.

The outer ditch had silted gradually of the centuries but the inner ditch had been dug out and backfilled soon afterwards leaving the body of a young pregnant cow in the bottom.

Over 1500 years ago, did the local Romano-British community regularly gather here to watch fights, contests and entertainments? If this was an amphitheatre it was like Maumbury Rings, Dorchester and had been adapted from an earlier earthwork. The Kingston Lacy amphitheatre started life as a Late Bronze Age sacred site complete with valuable livestock offered as sacrifices to whatever gods were worshipped at the time.

An important site. The farmer kindly agreed to conserve it and took this area out of the plough. It has remained a small pasture field ever since. The earthwork is clear to see now, covered in grass rather than stubble. Thanks for the information Mr Woodward.